Showing posts from June, 2009

Health Care

Greg Mankiw, George Will and others of the economic right are very worried about the inefficiencies that partial socialization of health care will introduce. Paul Krugman notes that they are ignoring important theoretical evidence in their arguments. Let me just add that the evidence of many years experience in nearly every other advanced country offers little or no support to the fears of the right. Krugman: Um, economists have known for 45 years — ever since Kenneth Arrow’s seminal paper — that the standard competitive market model just doesn’t work for health care: adverse selection and moral hazard are so central to the enterprise that nobody, nobody expects free-market principles to be enough. To act all wide-eyed and innocent about these problems at this late date is either remarkably ignorant or simply disingenuous. I'll take ignorant and disingenuous for George Will.

Brazil 3, US 2

The result was hardly a surprise, but it was doubly disappointing after jumping to a two goal lead in the first half. More excruciating was US play for the last 45 minutes. After playing confidently and aggressivel for the first 30 minutes, the US dropped more and more into a defensive crouch. During the second 45, the US rarely got three successive touches on the ball. Their strategy seemed to be letting the Brazillians control the ball 100% of the time and 90 % of the pitch, while letting them get shot after shot on the goal while hoping to dodge the ball. For twenty minutes they played like a top five team - for forty, they played like a number 200 team.

Legally Cool

The US House passed an anti-climate change bill this week. It would be a gross exaggeration to call it a good bill. It's a silly patchwork of compromises and giveaways to special interests, and it's not likely to be very effective either. On the other hand, despite the hysteria being whipped up by the fringers , it's not likely to have significant adverse economic consequences anytime real soon either. So what value, if any, does it have? It's a semi-symbolic start, which, if it proves useful, could be turned into something useful. Nonetheless, anything with so many moving parts is likely to pose potential problems, so the future needs to monitor it carefully. Personally, I would have much preferred a more direct "carbon added" tax. Aside from greenhouse warming, there are lots of other good reasons for decreasing our carbon use (it's running low, it makes the country vulnerable foreign suppliers whose interests run contrary to ours, and it's su

Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll

I suppose that I should be thinking about some of the many serious topics that are fermenting today (climate legislation, health care, or Iran) or maybe even about some of the current gossip (Farrah, Michael, or the sex lives of Carolina politicians), but I caught and got caught up in most of a NOVA program on The Music Gene last night. A lot of ground was covered, but one I noted was that music stimulated the reward center of the brain, the same center stimulated by sex and certain drugs. So, as one investigator noted, sex, drugs, and rock and roll go together neurologically as well as in popular culture. Speaking of culture, it is obvious that different cultures have different musical styles and produce different kinds of music. How much of our appreciation of music is conditioned and guided by these cultural norms? Maybe not as much as we would suspect. One of the more interesting experiments took modern western music to some primitive peoples with a very different type of mu

Saves You Money!

Paul Krugman (somewhere) argues that we need the government option to use its bargaining power to save us money (and that's good). Somewhere else, Tyler Cowen (and Milton Friedman, from the beyond) argue that the government, through its monopoly power, can force savings, and that's bad (I guess because the government is thereby taking money away from deserving cardiologists and hospital corporations). Hmmm. I think I will go with Krugman.

Let's hear it for the rainbow tour

Don't cry for me Argentina Governor Sanford does contrition better than some of his colleagues. Either that, or he has learned from their mistakes. The impressive thing to me is how fast these guys find remorse and repentance after they get caught.

Singular Sensation

Ray Kurzweil is an inventor and author whose books and inventions have made him rich. He is now devoting himself to prophesy and promotion of what he calls The Singularity. Newsweek, in its new incarnation, has a long profile of the man and his vision. Ray Kurzweil's wildest dream is to be turned into a cyborg—a flesh-and-blood human enhanced with tiny embedded computers, a man-machine hybrid with billions of microscopic nanobots coursing through his bloodstream. And there's a moment, halfway through a conversation in his office in Wellesley, Mass., when I start to think that Kurzweil's transformation has already begun. It's the way he talks—in a flat, robotic monotone. Maybe it's just because he's been giving the same spiel, over and over, for years now. He does 70 speeches annually at $30,000 a pop, and draws crowds of adoring fans who worship him as a kind of prophet. Kurzweil is a legend in the world of computer geeks, an inventor, author and computer scie


One of Andrew Sullivan's readers succinctly describes stands what the neocons never will comprehend: One thing that keeps coming up in the commentaries on Iran is the observation that, in demanding that the Iranian people accept an election result that is so obviously false, Khamenei is insulting the intelligence, and thus the integrity, of his people. Or as Rami Khoury puts it in the piece you linked to, "human not like being treated like idiots by their own government, and resist the process when it takes place." This is precisely what was so infuriating about the last 8 years, starting with the disputed election, right on to the very bitter end. Time and again, the neocons who led our country asked the American people, and the world, to accept things that were obviously false (Saddam was an imminent threat to the U.S., WMD or no WMD), obviously illegal (neither Geneva Conventions nor FISA applied to GWoT), or obviously evil (torture), thereby insulting

Post Apocalyptic

The Washington Post is now dead to me, and I don't think I will miss it. The firing of Dan Froomkin is merely the last straw in an era of rapid decline. The Post still has a couple of good reporters, but they aren't worth wading through the bullshit to get to. One Faux News is way more than enough. I may or may not cancel my Newsweek subscription as well - it's not quite as hopeless but it's recent makeover sucks, and it is owned by the same disgraces to their journalistic traditions. UPDATE: Brad Delong has a few recent examples of Dan's work. Read them and compare to the dreck churned out by Will, Krauthammer, Cohen, Broder and the rest of the WP's stable of losers. It's easy to see why Froomkin's existence was a continuing rebuke to Fred Hiatt and his whorehouse of over-the-hill hacks.


Life has a way of making us pessimistic, especially about the prospects of unarmed courage against the well-armed and brutal. Still, I can't help but be inspired by the courage of the Iranian demonstrators. I wish they could be helped, but for now, at least, they must depend on themselves and the hope that the army will not shoot it's citizens.

It's About Time

Whenever deep and difficult questions trouble the minds of the . Wise . of . Arda (or the less wise ), it is sure that the Il Lumo nati will be there as well. I will leave you to ponder his words, as I am, but a parenthetical remark caught my eye. Diversity of viewpoints I must say one more thing. Sean Carroll talks about different perspectives where the concept of time is more real or less real. And he makes it very clear that he doesn't give a damn whether one has these different viewpoints. Such comments are just stunning for me. The existence of different ways how to look at the same physics that profoundly and qualitatively differ (e.g. by the existence of some coordinates of spacetime) is one of the most critical criteria that measure a true conceptual progress in physics. That's why the AdS/CFT correspondence is so deep. Such dualities and alternative descriptions tell us that concepts, phenomena, and mathematical descriptions that used to be thought of as completely d

Switches and Gates

The humblest elements of our technology are usually the most important, and one of the humblest "bits" is the switch. The essence of the switch is a system with two or more stable states, separated by less stable regions. We often call those states "on" and "off" since the switch is usually used as some kind of gate. The ordinary or "garden" variety of gate may be one of the oldest uses of the technology. If you have a wall, it usually has the function of keeping something out (or in), but sometimes you want to go out or in, or let someone else out or in, and this is much simpler if one has a gate or door. From an expansive enough view a lot of things can be considered to be gates (a flint and steel can be seen as a "gate" between the burning and non burning states) but I will try to confine the usage to more explicit gates. From the light switch to the transistor "bits" that are at the heart of our computers, switches a

Sicker Shock

The usual suspects think they have a way to kill care reform - we just can't afford it, they say. There is no doubt that this argument has some traction with the public and especially with the conservative Democrats deep in the pockets of the health insurance industry. How odd that none of these dumb bastards felt any sticker shock when we flushed three trillion dollars and thousands of lives down the Iraq toilet - or when we gave another trillion or four borrowed dollars away to the very rich. An annoying example: I'd just like to repeat a simple question I asked at the beginning of the Obama administration: which would you rather have, the fiscal stimulus or $775 billion in public health programs? Even better, how about $300 billion in stimulus -- the immediate stuff like aid to state governments -- and $475 billion in public health programs? At the time no one except a few progressives thought such a question was particularly relevant. Note that the economy has seemed to s

The Search for Lost Time

Time is God's way of keeping everything from happening at once ...........sometimes attributed to Einstein or John Wheeler. The times they are a-changing ......Bob Dylan Sean Carroll takes up the question of timelessness in physics, quoting Fotini Markopolou: There are two kinds of people in quantum gravity. Those who think that timelessness is the most beautiful and deepest insight in general relativity, if not modern science, and those who simply cannot comprehend what timelessness can mean and see evidence for time in everything in nature. What sets this split of opinions apart form any other disagreement in science is that almost no one ever changes their mind… Which unchanging character is certainly plausible if one doesn't believe in time anyway. Neither Sean nor Fotini has much sympathy for the anti-time warriors (whose original ranks included Einstein), though she would like to do away with geometry, gravity, and space instead. As Sean points out, however, those in t

Origin of Life

The problem of the origin of life is perhaps the most important unsolved problem of modern science. The development of life can be traced back nearly to the time when the Earth cooled almost 4 billion years ago, but there are limited clues as to how it might have developed from non-living matter. One problem is that every living organism has essentially the same core biochemistry, cellular organization, and genetic operation, which is a potent sign that all life shares a common origin but doesn't provide many clues as to how it started. The simplest forms of life we know already possess a very sophisticated and intricately interdependent biological machinery. How could such a complicated thing have come into existence? Life as we know it requires metabolism to build and operate itself and genetic material to code for the metabolic machinery. Neither can exist without the other, so we are confronted with the chicken and egg problem at the most fundamental level. Nobody knows ho

First They Kill all the Computers

Monday, Monday

Contemplating the many injustices in the world is one way to start off a week. Here are a few: The continued existence of the LA Lakers. Talk radio The Iranian election The plot to eleminate girls. The crappy reporting and crapper editing of The New York Times Even worse reporting by everybody else, except Television News - what it does should not be dignified by the terms "reporting" much less "editing." Bibi Netanyahu The many lies of Israel's creation myth Obama's coverup of Bush administration criminality

Fundamentally Inconstant?

Nothing is more fundamental to physics than measurement. The result of any measurement is a number, a number that is usually referred to some system of units. The Lumonator , following M J Duff and Jorge Majueijo has lately posted on the status of fundamental constants. One of the most important confirmations of Einstein's special relativity theory was the discovery that measurements of the speed of light yielded the same result independent of the movement of the measurer - in contrast to say, measurements of the speed of water or sound waves. The discovery of a universal relation between energy and frequency of light led to another constant of nature, Planck's constant. Some have speculated that these constants might actually be varying with time. What caught Motl's attention was Duff's statement that: The possible time variation of dimensionless fundamental constants of nature, such as the fine-structure constant , is a legitimate subject of physical enquiry. By cont

Shep Smith

Shep Smith is a tiny point of light in the bleak night that is Fox News. TPM finds him calling out the birthers and other wackos who email him. Unfortunately, Fox is a major factor in giving credibility to most of these extremists. Some version of much of the crackpot hate speech these people feed on is regularly featured on Fox - and regularly spouted by the usual Republican demagogues. The recent murder of the security guard at the Holocaust Museum and of Dr. Tiller are natural sequellae of the lies regularly spouted by Gingrich, O'Reilly, Hannity, Malkin, the Buchanans and ilk. Those who have given them their platforms deserve to be held accountable.

Peter Schiff

Jon Stewart's guest last night was Peter Schiff, who was flacking his new book. Jon ate up his message that the right way to have handled the financial crisis was to have let the bad banks fail. Tempting as this seems, I doubt it. This looks like more of the same magic marketry to me. I wouldn't trust Schiff even if he hadn't lost me a bunch of money (by investing in his fund). The guy has a product to sell, or a few of them. He's selling a book, selling a fund, and selling himself as a candidate for the Senate. Mark me down as unpersuaded.

Bully Bully

Confrontation with a bully is a central theme of children's and adolescent fiction. It also a principal trial of youth for many. It's easy to see bullying as a natural outgrowth of the youthful competition for status that we share with our Chimpanzee relatives - working your way up the hierarchy by beating your way up. The fact that bullying is a normal part of childhood is hardly proof that we need to put up with it though. There is plenty of evidence that bullying is bad for the bullies as well as for the victims. Peter Klass, MD, writing in the New York Times says that we know how to eliminate or greatly decrease bullying. Europeans, he says, have developed the techniques. Next month, the American Academy of Pediatrics will publish the new version of an official policy statement on the pediatrician’s role in preventing youth violence. For the first time, it will have a section on bullying — including a recommendation that schools adopt a prevention model developed by Dan Ol

Simple Theory

Tyler Cowen has a Simple Theory of the Financial Crisis and he seems to believe that it somehow defends Rational Expectations Theory. Once we liberate ourselves from applying the law of large numbers to entrepreneurial error, as Black urged us, another answer suggests itself. Investors systematically overestimated how much they could trust the judgment of other investors. Investment banks overestimated how much they could trust the judgment of other investment banks. Purchasers of mortgage-backed securities overestimated how much they could trust the judgment of both the market and the rating agencies as to the securities’ values. A commonly held view was that although financial institutions had made large bets, key decision makers had their own money on the line and thus things could not be all that bad. Proceeding on some version of that assumption, most market participants (and regulators) held positions that were increasingly vulnerable to systemic financial risk. In this regard,

Rational Markets

Bee takes a look at seemingly irrational behavior in the financial markets. It was not that people who were actively involved in building up the problem were completely unconcerned. They just had no way to channel their uncanny feelings. From a transcript of a radio broadcast "This American Life" (audio, pdf transcript, via): mortgage broker: was unbelievable... my boss was in the business for 25 years. He hated those loans. He hated them and used to rant and say, “It makes me sick to my stomach the kind of loans that we do.” Wall St. banker: ...No income no asset loans. That's a liar's loan. We are telling you to lie to us. We're hoping you don't lie. Tell us what you make, tell us what you have in the bank, but we won't verify? We’re setting you up to lie. Something about that feels very wrong. It felt wrong way back when and I wish we had never done it. Unfortunately, what happened ... we did it because everyone else was doing it. Italics added.

Mating Games

I happened to catch just a couple of minutes of the NPR program This American Life one day and the subject seemed to be analyzing the number of potential mates for a person in a reasonably sized city. The (student?) investigators would ask various people what characteristics they considered essential for a mate and them try to figure out the likely numbers. One woman they asked said: "he just needs to be taller than I and smarter." Given that she was tall and a Harvard physics professor, said our investigator, her odds didn't look good. I was more interested in her choices. Why would those particular characteristics be crucial? The "taller" characteristic in particular seemed pretty superficial to me for a physics professor, and the "smarter" part was odd too. As a Harvard physics prof, I thought, she must have nearly always been smarter than all the males she knew. I was also struck by the fact that it was relative rather than absolute height

Efficient Markets - Not So Much

The theory of efficient markets has taken a beating in the latest economic debacle. Joe Nocera, writing in the New York Times, takes a look at some recent abuse the theory has taken. You know what the efficient market hypothesis is, don’t you? It’s a theory that grew out of the University of Chicago’s finance department, and long held sway in academic circles, that the stock market can’t be beaten on any consistent basis because all available information is already built into stock prices. The stock market, in other words, is rational. In the last decade, the efficient market hypothesis, which had been near dogma since the early 1970s, has taken some serious body blows. First came the rise of the behavioral economists, like Richard H. Thaler at the University of Chicago and Robert J. Shiller at Yale, who convincingly showed that mass psychology, herd behavior and the like can have an enormous effect on stock prices — meaning that perhaps the market isn’t quite so efficient after all.

Rule of Drum

Kevin Drum brings us a little math problem: Via Alex Tabarrok, a pair of researchers asked people how big the economy would be if it grew 5% a year for 25 years: Only around 10–15% of the participants gave estimations between 50% less and 100% more than the true value...furthermore, the majority of the false estimations were systematically below the true value ...which was underestimated by 88.9–92.1% of the participants. As Kevin points out, this is not exactly one of those "look how many people think the Earth is flat" examples. It's not very easy to do the arithmetic to get the correct answer. 5% interest, compounded yearly, yields 1.05^25 (1.05 to the 25th power). This is not a calculation that I can do in my head. If one resorts to the binomial theorem (the first resort of the physics student!), we have (1+0.05)^25 which expands into the series 1+25/20+25*24/(2*20^2)+ ... This series converges slowly - the first three terms yield 3 compared to the actual value of

Eliot Spitzer: Annoying Scold

The Eliot Spitzer Rehab album is out, but it seems that the Rev Dimsdale has been reborn as an even more boring version of the same tiresome scold. In the cited link he rather hysterically recycles some well- known economic statistics and proposes some unimaginative and improbable remedies. While we have addressed the credit collapse, we have not begun to tackle the far more daunting, and more significant, structural problems in the economy. Instead of focusing on the green shoots, let's examine the macro data that will determine our national prosperity in the next generation. These data are terrifying. . . ...why not take an amount equal to the AIG bailout (more than $180 billion) and invest in a product that would be truly worthwhile: high-speed rail along our major economic corridors? If we transform the L.A.-San Francisco corridor with high-speed rail, and D.C.-Boston similarly, the savings and technological advances would be enormous. I love hig

That Toddlin Town

Milton Friedman infamously wrote: “Truly important and significant hypotheses will be found to have “assumptions” that are wildly inaccurate descriptive representations of reality, and, in general, the more significant the theory, the more unrealistic the assumptions (in this sense). The reason is simple. A hypothesis is important if it “explains” much by little, that is, if it abstracts the common and critical elements from the mass of complex and detailed circumstances surrounding the phenomena to be explained and permits valid predictions on the basis of them alone. To be important, therefore, a hypothesis must be descriptively false in its assumptions; it takes account of, and accounts for, none of the many other attendant circumstances, since its very success shows them to be irrelevant for the phenomena to be explained.” What he had in mind here, I suspect was defending the idea that a theory based on immortal nad farseeing rational agents could work in the real world of irratio

No Tears for Jonathan Pollard

Jonathan Pollard stole United States intelligence information, reputedly including some of our most secret intelligence gathering methods, to Israel, in return for jewelry, cash, and a large monthly stipend. Details of what he stole are still secret, but it was important enough that seven former Secretaries of Defense have signed petitions to keep him locked up. Students of the case have alleged that Israel was not his only customer, that he may have stolen and transferred as many as a million documents, and that Israel subsequently traded some of this information to the Soviet Union, resulting in the exposure and deaths of American agents. Whether these claims are true or not, we do know that Israel has lied, denied, concealed, and refused to cooperate at every step of our attempted investigation - see, e.g., the Wikipedia article that I linked to above. All those petitions from Defense Secretaries were needed because Israel and the Israel lobby have waged a long and vigorous campaig

Torah! Torah! Torah!

The highlight of a recent religious service that I attended occurred when the Rabbi switched to English for about 5 minutes of the five hour total. This was a highlight mainly because I understand English. A couple of things he said caught my attention, but the first was a story about Hillel be asked to explain the Torah while standing on one leg. He is reported to have said that the message of the Torah was "Do unto your neighbor as you would have him do unto you. The rest is commentary." This is a wonderful ethical principle, but a lousy summary of the Torah. My (admittedly weak) biblical scholarship suggests that there is at least as much "do unto your neighbor before he does unto you," not to mention assorted genocides, other forms of mass murder, the odd human sacrifice and a very long list of mostly absurd rules for living. I do think that Hillel picked out the part worth saving - but I'm less impressed with the commentary.